Teach the Controversy (You Know, the Unsubstantiated Claims of our Illiterate Ancestors)

I have a reoccurring back issue that likes to render me physically incapacitated for days on end.  It’s dreadful, but that isn’t the topic of this post.  Because my body is experiencing a moment of debilitation, I’ve been blissfully inhibited to cognitive exercises.  In the process, I have come across several ludicrous articles on the internet.  That shouldn’t surprise you, and it certainly didn’t surprise me.  I was confounded, however, to find one such article on a website that I frequent.  So, I’ve decided to share it with you.

Listverse is a website that… well, I’ll let them tell you.

Listverse is a place for explorers. Together we seek out the most fascinating and rare gems of human knowledge. We write, we read, we learn—and in the process, we have fun. Every day we publish three or more amazing lists packed with as many new facts as possible. You will always leave Listverse smarter than when you arrived. Guaranteed.

Come in and join our tribe of enthusiastic and friendly folk. People just like you—crazy about learning something new and, more importantly, something you can tell your friends about. Listversers are the smartest people at the party!

Now, I like this website for its simplicity.  It provides exactly what it advertises: Knowledge, on topics ranging from entertainment to science, in a list format.   Resulting from its simplicity, however, the reader is left with a desire for additional information.  And that’s fine, because it still serves its purpose admirably – mostly.

Here are some of the articles I enjoyed today:

  • 10 Insane Military Tactics That Actually Worked – Assuming Caesar didn’t blow smoke up everyone’s you-know-what, his account of Alesia is one of the most brilliantly orchestrated sieges in history.  I highly recommend you read Caesar’s Gallic Wars – it’s fascinating.
  • 10 Craziest Things Done By Philosophers – Number eight focuses on one strange aspect of possibly one of the strangest, yet laudable philosophers of all time.  If I’m not mistaken, the etymology of the word “cynic” can be traced to him, which is intriguing in itself.

Finally, we come to the list that caught me by surprise:

Now, initially I was tempted to write a refutation against each of Karl Smallwood’s ten points, but that would have been tiresome. So I did it anyway.

10. Demand (OK I’ll Bite)

Reason: People want it

Regardless of your personal feelings on the matter, the wants and needs of the many out weigh the wants and needs of the few and according to a poll of several thousand Americans, twenty percent believed that only evolution should be taught in schools, and sixteen percent believed that only creationism should be taught. The remainder supported the notion of teaching both: evolution in the science class, and creation in a philosophy class. Either way you look at it, that’s a decent chunk of people asking for the same thing. You don’t even need that many people to agree on something to elect the president.

Which version of Creationism should be taught?  All versions? What subject should we use to introduce our children to them?  I’m actually a proponent of teaching children different creation myths.  Daniel Dennett is as well, and I’ll let you watch this video instead of reiterating the same sentiments.

My opinion is that they should be taught in a religious studies or anthropology of religion course.  They don’t belong in a philosophy course – the purpose of a philosophy of religion course is to debate the philosophical arguments for the existence/non-existence of god(s), not to review the various myths.  And they certainly don’t belong in a science classroom.  Material in a science classroom should be vetted through the scientific community, which Creationism/Intelligent Design has not been.  From a scientific perspective Creationism/ID is, under the most lenient of circumstances, a hypothesis.  As such, it belongs in the hands of scientists armed with the task of collecting the standard of empirical data necessary for substantiation.  Afterwards, if substantial evidence has been collected and positively reviewed, the hypothesis requires inclusion into the world of scientific theory.  This is the only acceptable path of introduction into a science classroom.

9.  Legitimacy (Meet Warranted Pedantry)

Reason: It’s a legitimate belief system

Though evolution is almost universally accepted by scientists, a great deal of non-scientists still believe in some of the teaching of creationism. For example, a Gallup poll in 2010 revealed that four in ten Americans believed in strict Creationism, whereas in the UK that number sits at closer to two in ten. Whether or not you believe it isn’t the point, the point is that this is a belief held by a significant number of people—people who, like you and me—pay taxes for their children’s education.

By this standard – people believe in it, therefore – astrology, homeopathy, psychokinesis and feng shui should also be taught in schools.  Legitimacy and Popular Belief are not synonymous.

8. Poor Education  (Something We Agree On)

Reason: Religious studies are painfully lacking

Religious studies are almost non-existent in the Western world in the public school system. Some would say this is a good thing, as it separates the church and the state, but is it really a bad thing to teach children how to better understand their fellow man? According to statistics, there are well over a dozen separate belief systems in the US alone. It isn’t a bad thing to teach children about the various aspects of these difference faiths in a non-biased way. Even Darwin himself expressed the notion that ignorance is more dangerous than knowing nothing.

Great, we see eye to eye!  Reform our school system to include a more robust mythology curriculum.

7. Diversity (You Already Argued for Diversity in “Education”)

Reason: It’s important for children to know all ways of thinking

It’s easy to sit back and say that we should only teach children evolution because we perceive that as the right way, however, school isn’t just about maths, science, English and history. There’s a side of education usually referred to as the hidden curriculum. This is the side effect of regular school life and is how most children pick up social norms, beliefs and basically the things that will mold them as a person. Creationism and other such belief systems inspire debate and encourage children to articulate thoughts that help them develop skills that simply cannot be gained through a strictly academic education.

Although I think this has already been satisfactorily covered, I think it’s important to differentiate between Evolution and Creationism.  Evolution is falsifiable.  Since Darwin, we have gathered mountains of evidence in support of it.  There are still unknowns and we should encourage our children to challenge, debate, disagree, and ultimately reject them, as appropriate.  That is, they should engage in the use of sound reasoning, guided by the principles of the scientific method; not, and I repeat, not because they are at odds with presupposed, unsubstantiated, unfalsifiable notions of the world.

6. Freedom of Speech (I Can’t Yell “Fire?”)

Reason: Freedom of speech and expression works both ways

Arguing that creationism is forcing religion on children is akin to saying a history class on World War II is forcing fascism on children. Living in a society that allows people to express their views openly without fear of hostility as long as they do it nicely means that we will often have to hear things we disagree with. It’s important for children to know and understand these views. Painting every issue as black and white, right and wrong gives them an unrealistic view of a world. The same thing that gives you the right to not believe in religion gives other people the same right to practice it.

Freedom of Speech is not an unencumbered, boundless right.  Just as we can’t run through an airport screaming “Bomb,” we can’t accost our school system indiscriminately.  There is a place for such lessons; see above for my recommended setting.

5. Science (It Doesn’t Necessarily Agree Either)

Reason: It doesn’t necessarily disagree with science

One commonly-held view of creationists is that they are a bunch of religious zealots feverishly ignoring an ever increasing amount of evidence contrary to their beliefs. However, although those people exist, there also exists a sizable number of people who believe the two trains of thought can co-exist.

Old Earth creationists don’t necessarily disagree with mainstream science, in fact they openly embrace it, they simply believe that God, or some other higher power played a part in the events that led to our creation. Even the pope says that faith and evolution can co-exist. And I’m pretty sure that the priest who come up with the idea of the big bang would have agreed with him.

Well, now that it appears we have switched gears from evolution to cosmology I think it’s important to note that Smallwood didn’t confuse evolution with abiogenesis, so kudos!  However, if Smallwood had ever been so inclined to take an astronomy course, he would have been exposed to two important things. First, Georges Lemaître is always mentioned and given credit for the proposal of the Big Bang theory.  It is also mentioned, however, that Lemaître didn’t approve of the Pope’s resultant declaration; namely, that the Big Bang validates the Judeo-Christian genesis myth.  Second, conjecture has no place in science.  Asserting that God-did-it is conjecture, plain and simple.  This assertion has literally been posited for every natural phenomena, from rainbows to wind.  Upon the discovery of a natural cause, this assertion is abandoned and applied to a new gap in knowledge.  Human experience has demonstrated that such assertions are frivolous and add nothing positive to the pursuit of scientific knowledge.

4. Misrepresentation (Pot, Meet Kettle)

Reason: Creationism is misrepresented

As mentioned above, not all creationists argue against scientific evidence. Some simply prefer to believe that God had a part in it rather than not knowing. They don’t belittle scientific theory or try to argue against it, they simply want to believe that the large unknown force that caused all life as we know it was a deity of some kind.

However, most creationists are painted as lunatics and with atheism on the rise in the younger generation, people who simply wish to have faith in a higher power are being constantly misrepresented. With impartial education about the key facts, that would no longer be the case.

In the physical anthropology course that I took, such conclusions were not censored by the professor.  They simply weren’t pursued because there is no evidence for such conclusions.  The discipline of anthropology, and more specifically, the theory of evolution is based on facts, period.  How you adjust your personal beliefs to align with those facts is up to the individual.  Moreover, the key facts are presented impartially.  In trying to argue against misrepresentation, Smallwood is proposing that we misrepresent what we know of evolution.  That is, we abandon impartiality by introducing unsubstantiated postulations.  What is so difficult to understand about that?

3. History (Here We Go Again)

Reason: It’s an important part of history

Like it or not, creationism dominated human belief for centuries: even if you don’t believe it now, our ancestors did. Why should we skip over an integral part of human history simply because many don’t agree with it today? If that were true for all things we’d never teach children about World War II or slavery. If you don’t believe in creationism as a belief system, you have to agree that it was one of the fundamental factors of human civilization for hundreds of years. As such, it’s important that children are at least aware of it.

As I have repeatedly said, it is important to expose students to all aspects of humanity.  In this way we will combat ethnocentrism.  Anthropology, the study of humankind, is the most appropriate discipline for such studies.

2. Stupidity (But They Are Impressionable)

Reason: Children aren’t stupid.

Children’s minds are a wonderful thing. They absorb knowledge far faster than ours and they have an amazing ability to process information on a mass scale while young. Though many would criticize children for saying they have a simplistic view of the world, their ability to process information is second to none.

Piaget’s theory of cognitive development states that children will learn the basic concepts of logic and reasoning at around age eight, while their use of primitive reasoning and the much dreaded “why?” phase occurs much younger than that. With that in mind, is it really so bad to indulge that curiosity in an honest way?

No, it’s not wrong to indulge their curiosity in an honest way.  Your method, Smallwood, seems to curiously undermine “Honesty,” however.

1. Veracity (By the Same Standard of Evidence, Santa Clause Might Be Real Too)

Reason: It might be true.

Not just creationism, but all the alternatives. Around 200 years ago a man named Ignaz Semmelweis warned doctors that tiny creatures they couldn’t see were killing their patients because they wouldn’t wash their hands. He was belittled, beaten and died in abject poverty. Several years later he was proven right about everything he’d claimed. If you don’t believe in a deity, an omniscient force that controls the universe, is it really acceptable to claim that the entire notion is impossible?

Again, by this same logic we should be teaching alchemy and phrenology as well.  Furthermore, and once again, the possibility of the existence/non-existence of god(s) should be left to the gamut of philosophical discourse.  Smallwood, you need to (1) distinguish between subjects and (2) become more mindful of the questions you’re proposing.  Evolution, abiogenesis, Creationism/Intelligent Design, mythology, and philosophical arguments should not, and cannot be encompassed within one subject.  Teach away! Just don’t confuse empirically based science with unsubstantiated belief.

Categories: Religion

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35 replies

  1. Great rebuttal! And, there’s another big reason – a constitutional reason – why creationism cannot be taught as an empirical study in public schools. America is officially a secular nation. The 1st amendment protects both the freedom of religion and the freedom from religion (i.e. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…”).

    • Yes, a great point! Unfortunately, that’s not a universal perspective on the first amendment. When I come across arguments of that nature (which is more often than I can even believe sometimes) I point the individual towards the correspondence of James Madison, his congressional speeches, and the discourse that ensued afterwards. All of this is available through the Library of Congress, and it quickly clarifies the intent of each amendment. Thanks for reading!

      • The contrary perspective on the 1st amendment’s Establishment Clause is inherently fundamentalist. That is, originating from a strict adherence to an orthodox theology. This position is clearly excluded from state sponsorship in the text of the Constitution, in the intent of our Founding Fathers (as you described), and in the interpretation of the Supreme Court (see: Engel v. Vitale (1962), Abington School District v. Schempp (1963), and Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971)). The so-called “Lemon test” requires that any practice sponsored within state run schools (or other public, state sponsored activities) must adhere to the following three criteria:

        1. Have a secular purpose;
        2. Must neither advance nor inhibit religion; and
        3. Must not result in an excessive entanglement between government and religion.

        This neutral stance on religion by government (not individuals) is at the core of Americanism. People who would destroy this priceless principle are, in effect, advocating for theocracy and authoritarianism. Lest we forget the brave souls who came to this country to flee religious persecution in distant lands devoid of this essential freedom.

        • Yes, but playing Devil’s Advocate, their argument enlists cases where the Supreme Court was over-ruled. Saying, in a sense, that the Supreme Court occasionally misinterprets the intent of certain constitutional principles.

          What you detailed is absolutely true, but citing court cases won’t persuade them. You must show unambiguous evidence, direct from the authors themselves.

  2. As you say, if it must be taught, it can’t be taught in a science class. I have no problem with it being mentioned though as those attempts aimed at discrediting evolution. But to claim it is free speech is to miss the point of education. If this were the case, anything would be taught in classrooms but this isn’t the case except in places where people are overtly religious and dispute evolution because it doesn’t fit with their religious books

  3. Very well written. A wonderfully succinct new dissection of old arguments that should long have been laid to rest but which creationists insist are still valid.

  4. Indiana’s Ball State University has just come up with a novel idea: they’re going to teach why “creationism” is wrong.

    Here’s a good article on it. These lads are excellent:


  5. I don’t really agree on Julius Cesar and Alesia. He led a colonial war and in Alesia, he let women and children starve. By today’s standards, he would end up as a criminal of war in the international court in The Hague. He might have been brilliant, but in the first place, he was cruel and cold, probably he was a psychopath. That this kind of cruelty was normal at the time is no excuse in my view. In the Bellum Gallicum there is one place where he boasts about a genocide himself. I don’t know how many deaths he was responsible for (probably hundreds of thousands), but I think he belongs into one category with Genghis Khan, Hitler, Stalin and Mao (this list is not complete). Ruthless mass killers. I don’t admire such people. Besides this, Bellum Gallicum is a piece of propaganda. He was the “embedded Journalist” of this war; this book is not an objective source. He won the war, without doubt, but if it happened the way he described it, who knows. He changed the course of history like only a few other people, so he is an important figure of history, but great he was not.

    • Well, I didn’t say that he led a moral campaign against the Gauls. He was outnumbered three to one, in foreign territory. His army was starving as well, due to the scorched earth policy of Vercingetorix. He built two walls around a city within weeks, erected towers and anti-personnel devices. Furthermore, he forced his adversary to choose between starvation and defeat. Vercingetorix kicked the women and children out of Alesia, and when Caesar refused to take them in, Vercigetorix refused to allow them to return. He didn’t murder the inhabitants afterwards either; he only took Vercigetorix.

      I am not celebrating the death of thousands, nor am I celebrating his specific decisions. As a whole, however, one must credit the man for waging a successful campaign, against all odds. And yes, how much of the story is credible is certainly up for debate. Nevertheless, is an interesting read.

      • Definitely an interesting read. But that does not change my opinion about him. Cesar was the one who started this war. Starting a war without being attacked is a crime. Colonialism is a crime. I have seen estimates of about 1 million victims of this war. We don’t know exactly, but the evidence is enough to say that he was a criminal of war who committed crimes against humanity. Those concepts did not exist in his time. He did what others were doing, just on a larger scale and maybe more brilliantly. Let’s say, it was the perfect crime. We would not be here without that history. I am living in Cologne, a city founded by romans whose name is derived from “colonia”. But I cannot admire what such people do. My opinion.

  6. Creationism can exist very comfortably with science given the ultimate “I don’t know” factor of both science and religion.

    I too have a back. It makes blogging so attractive when one cannot actually do much moving without a lot of pain.

  7. Here is the problem I have with teaching any version of creation in science: it isn’t science. The whole premise of creationism is that God did it. We can not observe, test, measure, or reproduce any part of that equation. If you can not use the scientific method then it is not science. Even theistic evolution, to which I subscribe, cannot be taught as science. It is a theology.
    Also, I agree that it violates the first amendment, unless you teach the creation myths of every world religion thus not establishing any of them but if you just teach Christian creationism the government, through the public school, is establishing Christianity as the state religion.
    Just say at the beginning of the class “We teach evolution in this class. You don’t have to agree with it and you are free to believe something else but you need to learn this stuff to pass the test and to be able to have a rational conversation with someone who does agree with evolution.” That is what my science teacher did in High School. It was fine.

  8. Teach the Controversy – Zeus causes lightning and thunder.

  9. Legitimacy and Popular Belief are not synonymous.

    I reckon this just about covers everything.
    Very enjoyable read, RL.

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